Musikhörende Frau


Music in a class of its own

It revolutionized the music industry: the MP3 format. Scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute developed this format in the 1990s. Since then, it has been possible to store entire music collections digitally.

Piles of music CDs or even cassettes – hardly anyone collects these anymore. Digital playlists on a computer, smartphone, or online are the common format used by music lovers today to make sure they always have their favorite soundtrack to hand. This shift was triggered by a development by six researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits (IIS) more than 20 years ago. Karlheinz Brandenburg, Ernst Eberlein, Heinz Gerhäuser, Bernhard Grill, Jürgen Herre, and Harald Popp originally wanted to know how music could be transmitted in good sound quality over telephone lines. They started exploring this issue in the early 1990s. They finally succeeded in compressing digital audio files so that they took up only ten percent of the storage space of the original without the sound quality suffering. For their idea, the scientists drew on findings from psychoacoustics: they only stored the signal components that are easily perceptible to the human ear. This allowed the amount of data to be reduced. On July 14, 1995, they gave their idea a name: “MP3” is what the file extension for the audio compression method has been known as since. The technical name is a bit more complicated: “ISO Standard IS 11172-3 MPEG Audio Layer 3”.

From the MP3 player to streaming

For a long time, it was unclear whether the technology would establish itself on the market, as there were still no devices to play music collections in mini format. The corresponding encoder software was originally intended for the music industry primarily – until an Australian student bought it, deciphered its function, and put the encoder online. This allowed users to convert their CDs into handy MP3 files. The first MP3 players went on sale in 1998, followed by the first iPod in 2001. Today, every smartphone can play MP3 files. And now streaming is another development to establish itself in the digital audio world. Most streaming services also work with the MP3 standard. The researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute are counting on music lovers still being able to play their songs in this format for many years to come.

(Header: Mix and Match Studio – Shutterstock)

Place of invention

Fraunhofer IIS, Am Wolfsmantel 33, 91058 Erlangen